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07.22.2013 , 08:48 PM |
Shifting gears a little for Wynston's
. 2600 words. No game spoilers.
The injection Keeper offered did take the bite off Wynston's nervousness and seemed to slow the sweating. He settled into the office, started sorting through information that would come in handy when he returned to the
He put in a decent day and submitted his conclusions to Vector and Temple back home. He kept his language professional, impersonal; he couldn't think of anything else to say just then. He worked through a late dinner hour, then packed up and headed out.
He spotted his tail only a few blocks out from the Citadel. A woman in street clothes, more classic than trendy in style, flattering the curves of her figure; thirtysomething from what he could see of her, black hair gathered in a clip, skin of a copper hue rare among humans, broad angular features, one eye an artificial red set in a delicate half-arc of black metal cybernetics, an air of nervousness that said she wasn't experienced in following people.
Something new to think about.
A few cuts and turns on side streets established that she knew her way around the city. She looked flustered after a couple of turns and cutbacks, though. Definitely not experienced with this. What was the angle, then? Was there a second follower, or was there something special about this one?
The fastest way to find out, in his professional opinion, was to lure her into a large store, one that he knew had openings on two streets; if she knew it too she knew she had to follow him in or risk losing him. In less than a minute she appeared inside, pushing up on her toes to scan the crowd. He swung out from behind the nearest rack and laid a hand on her upper arm. "So," he murmured, "this is my Minder?"
She jumped but held her ground. "A Fixer, actually," she said, staring at him with one eye wide and the other steady red. "Fixer Thirty-Four."
"Oh, I like Fixers. They're always so good with their hands. Now, were you ever going to come up and introduce yourself?"
"I wasn't to interfere unless you went in–"
"Someplace that serves interesting things, hmm?" When he started walking she went with him. "Well, you're here now. We may as well find someplace to sit down." He was getting hungry. "Why don't we go on to the Nexus Roo–"
She stopped short. "That's quite impossible."
He let go of her arm but leaned in to keep his voice at a conversational pitch in the crowd. "I'm allowed to eat. I specifically stipulated that when negotiating terms today."
She looked him over then met his eye, looking almost defiant. "Very well," she said. "There's just one thing. I am absolutely forbidden from letting you drink alcohol, which means I would have to drink any that ends up at our table. And…" her expression softened…"I'm almost six years sober. Please understand, it would be really embarrassing if–"
Ah. "Of course," said Wynston, "I understand completely." That was why this was a random technician; they wanted someone with the experience regardless of her other qualifications. "Let's not put that in jeopardy. That said, it's my first night back in town and I'd like to see the changes to the Nexus Room’s food menu." He offered her his arm; she eyed it with raised eyebrows and then started past him. He thought he spied a little tug of a smile, but she was all poise when he caught up to fall in step with her.
His attention was engaged at close range now as they navigated the crowded street. Fixer Thirty-Four was close enough to his height to stay comfortably in step and she did so with a reflexive discipline that suggested she had always been in the service. There was a softness about her wrists and neck that said she wasn't in the business of hard physical work. What was the Kaliyo antidote he had been daydreaming of? Long hair, a body more soft than muscular, a feminine scent?…first things first, man. But she seemed a pleasant contrast to everything that had been tormenting him lately. And, interestingly enough, she seemed to be examining him, too, out of the corner of her eye.
"I recommend something a little less…intense…than the Nexus Room," she said just before they rounded the corner to the landmark cantina. "Somewhere a little lower-key might be…"
"They serve food here, don't they? And I've missed it. Come on."
The restaurant washed over him like a second homecoming: heat, and music, and smells, a thoroughly Kaas regiment of smells. Good food and even more good drink. Good, good…
Maybe this was a mistake.
Momentum and the intense awareness of the woman at his side kept him going. "Two for dinner," he told the greeter droid. He was a little surprised when the Fixer leaned past him to say "Some quiet table, please."
He noticed something as the droid led them in. "'Quiet' happens to coincide with 'out of sight of the bar'."
She nodded, smiling. "It makes things easier for me."
When they reached their table Wynston took one quick step ahead to pull the Fixer's chair out for her. She stopped, eyeing him with one eye dark and disbelieving, one unblinking red. "What are you…?"
"Go on, sit down." He nodded at the chair, which she did after another moment of suspicion decide to sit in. Unexpected chivalry: it was the most enjoyable kind of discomfiture one was generally allowed to tease out of a lady while still being counted a good guy. If she wasn't expecting this dynamic, well, then he scored a point for surprise while the game was just starting
He settled opposite her and immediately found the serving droid back. "I'll have a…." The taste of a good wine hung there in his forced silence. "Water," he said weakly.
"For me as well," said the Fixer, offhandedly waving away the wine menu.
Wynston fiddled with his napkin, forced himself to spread it on his lap. He couldn't be nervous now, for stars' sake, he had someone to talk to, something to concentrate on. "So. They took you off something important to follow me around and ensure I didn't go anyplace where I might…slip up."
"A directive I didn't expect to see broken quite this quickly."
"Directives and I have a complex relationship. If it gets you in trouble we can go back to plan A, which I believe was having safe rations delivered directly to my hands as I walk the one approved safe path from my lodgings to my work."
"It shouldn't be a problem so long as you can vouch for me when we get out."
"Yes. Almost six years, you said."
Her wide thin-lipped mouth curved. "Just a couple of weeks shy."
"And that's why Keeper took you off real work? Because…I…happened to be qualified to show…you…around, this week?"
"Personnel support is real work. I don't think this assignment is any kind of waste."
He studied the tables off beyond her shoulder. "Of course," he said.
"As long as we're talking, if you have any questions about how the process goes, feel free to ask."
"If anything comes to mind, I will." He didn't really want to discuss addiction treatment with her right now. He didn't really want to discuss it with anyone. It was, however, a little comforting that she knew not only why he was here but what he was likely to be facing. Embarrassing, but comforting.
"Well," she said, "if you don't have any questions…"
"Hm?" He wasn't sure what to make of the conspicuous idleness of her expression.
She arched one thick brow. "Among Fixers Cipher Nine is nearly infamous. Were you aware of your status in the SEC-M program?"
Wynston ran that through his head a few times until it made sense. "SEC-M? The mouse droids? I'm a great fan, I didn't realize I had a status."
"You're the harshest customer we've got. You've done more to drive development in house in the last two years…"
"Madam, if you're saying you're involved in mouse droids then I should tell you now you're one of my favorite Intelligence employees in existence. If I put strain on them it's because I rely that heavily on them."
She smiled. "Program manager and head of firmware development. Glad to be of service. And I'll admit I jumped at the chance to meet the maniac who keeps putting my devices in these binds I hear about."
From there there was plenty to talk about. Fixer Thirty-Four warmed up on the topic of the job, picking up not only animation but friendliness. She'd been in Intelligence a few years longer than he had, albeit on much less lethal pursuits; they had a good deal in common and he found that he liked her style. If he had just casually met her he would be inclined to buy her a drink.
That thought kept coming up. He never said it.
She never mentioned it either. She talked, questioned, answered, laughed, and ate dinner, and drank water, and generally did a superb job of imagining that they could have a perfectly charming evening without taking a drop of alcohol. He tried hard to believe her. Lies weren't her stock in trade; she was serious. And she was pleasant enough about it.
"Would you care to dance?" he asked, quite some time later, once dinner had settled. It was the natural next thing to do.
Her smile had developed some time ago and held steady for a while; now it developed a wry edge. "I'm badly out of practice," she said.
"So am I, at this point. We can be out of practice together." He stood and offered a hand. "How bad could it possibly be?"
Her whole manner sang amusement. "That line work for you often?"
"More than you might think. Don't ruin its streak now."
She ignored his proffered hand, but did stand and make for the dance floor. He followed, unsure of exactly what he had signed up for. Well, there was only one way to find out.
And yet, as he stepped onto the dance floor, he felt a throat-blocking burst of self-consciousness. It was ridiculous, no one ever cared what anyone else did there, but he felt on edge. If he were allowed to drink he would go straight for the bar to properly prepare. But he was here, instead, dead sober, and the music was starting, and his partner was looking expectantly at him. He set a hand on her waist, clasped her hand, and moved.
And she moved with him. The inevitable uncertainty when two partners first tested each other's space resolved, it seemed, in the first step. A few more steps and she swung free, just for a second, with a textbook ballroom flourish. This could only be met by cutting a more complicated figure himself, which she followed as gracefully as if it had been her idea to begin with.
On it went from there. The woman could
, far beyond the mere act of moving on the dance floor. She could have been in a society ballroom – hell, or a competition hall. It took all the assorted scraps of semiformal training he had to do her half justice, and he still couldn't begrudge her the time she spent out of his arms, spinning and swaying with a grace all her own before she returned to him.
The music was a long medley; he resented the slowing that signaled its end. As the last note faded the noise of applause shattered his concentration. He tore his eyes off the Fixer to see a few people at a nearby table looking his way and clapping. A couple of people standing at the edge of the floor were in on it, too. He swallowed hard, lifted his partner back to balance, and sent a courtly little bow in their direction.
The song that came up next was slower, the lights dimming down. Wynston reached for the Fixer's waist and was startled when she turned away. "I need some water," she said breathlessly.
He followed her bobbing, now-tousled clip of hair to the bar. "That was incredible. Where did you learn to dance like that?"
She took two tall glasses from the serving droid and handed him one. She touched her cold glass to her flushed cheek for a second before she sipped from it. "My ex-husband, before the 'ex'," she said at last. "In between Intelligence specialization classes…so, a while ago."
"You're pretty good yourself."
"Out of practice," he said, and grinned. "We'll have to do this again if you want to see me at my best."
She smirked and looked him over with that two-tone scan. "Be careful, you're getting my hopes up." Then she straightened up and gestured peremptorily for him to accompany her back to their table. "By the way?" she said as they went. "Dancing at a cantina is possibly the worst pastime you could choose for someone in your…condition."
"Don't think it hasn't occurred to me. Multiple times. Worth it for that run, I'd say."
"Maybe, but if you make a break for the bar I will be forced to stop you."
His glass clattered when he tried to set it down at their table. That, and the continuation of sweat even after he'd left the floor, reminded him of the last stim Keeper had given him to keep symptoms under control. He excused himself to the 'fresher and made the injection there. Then he washed his hands, dabbed some sweat from his forehead and returned to the table. "With that," he said, "I think it's time I got out of your way."
"Ah. I should see you back to wherever you're staying. No drinks on the way."
He clamped down on the little burst of disappointment. Not that he was going to try anything, he reminded himself. "You're a harsh mistress," he said.
She cocked her head. "Cipher, you don't know what kind of mistress I am."
Very interesting. "The question is noted for your file," he drawled, and matched her smirk.
It was raining when they reached the door. She rushed a bubble projector out of her sleeve and extended it over both of them. Sensible woman. He gave her his arm and for once she took it; they proceeded briskly up the road to the hotel Intelligence always kept him in while he was in town.
The Fixer stayed at his side, still talking, while he checked in. He was intensely aware that she didn't move to disengage her arm when he led her into the hallway. "Thank you for a very nice dinner," she said. "To be honest I'd expected I would be stuck eating rations out of pocket following you."
"No, I try to treat my surveillance personnel better than that. We're skulking around one of the greatest cities in the galaxy, we might as well be civilized about it." He looked around at the mostly-empty lobby; he wondered what line wouldn't sound stupid to her. "So…just how closely do you have to track me? We should do this right, before you let me go."
He watched her turn the question over. Had she been expecting this part? He wasn't going to ask; she didn't seem to be having problems and he was willing to run it as casually as she wanted. The dance seemed worth continuing.
"Checking your quarters would be strictly a formality," she said, the shy lilt of her voice playing directly at odds with the dark intensity of her eye. "Obviously–"
"By all means. I'll cooperate fully."
The lift tone sounded. Fixer Thirty-Four laced her fingers in Cipher Nine's, and the pair went on together.
Dreams and Nightmares
, 450 words, no spoilers.
Wynston coiled and sprang upright when he awoke. Inventory, he reflexively struggled: unclothed, slick with sweat, shards of dreams falling away in all directions. Where was…hotel. Kaas City. Home. His heart was racing fit to burst.
"Hm?" came a drowsy voice from beside him. "Oh. Dreams?"
"Some," he said hoarsely. Woman. His minder, the Fixer. Not a danger. Not a danger. Half his brain was still tied up in formless visions.
"That's one thing you won't get around. Rebound REM, your body's making up for all the time it spent with that phase suppressed. It's harmless, just very uncomfortable."
He took a sharp controlled breath in and out, seeking steadiness and not quite making it. "You're well-informed."
She stirred and found his hand with hers. "I heard this stuff from a medical droid while I was locked in an under-air-conditioned medcenter room. If I can make it any more pleasant than that for you…well, that's what I'm here for."
"And here I'd hoped you were in it for the fun."
"That was a factor, too." With a light tug she guided him back down to her; she kissed him softly, then tucked his head under her chin and pushed her fingers to rest in his hair. He let himself relax into the smoothness of her voice. "Don't worry about waking me up again; it might happen a couple more times. The dreams are intense but they don't mean anything, and it does ease up in a few days. You'll be all right, Cipher Nine." Her thumb slid to caress his cheek. "And I'm not just getting paid to say that."
He lay still, checking over his feelings from head to toe and back, wondering that she should have known not only what was different but how and why. She was here to help. She was kind about it, and that was more than expected. He hoped he had repaid her well enough. If not, he hoped for another chance tomorrow. Assuming he was in any shape to do anything. Stars, he didn’t like feeling this vulnerable…and yet, she was relaxed and gentle, not asking anything of him, nor shoving anything at him. It made him want to offer something freely. "You can call me Wynston," he said.
Her exhalation was soft and happy. "I'm Pacha Gann," she said. "You know, when I'm not being a Cipher-Minding Fixer."
"My Minder," he whispered, smiling crookedly into the darkness. "Pacha."
She nodded. Her heartbeat under his ear was strong and steady. "It gets better from here, Wynston."
He couldn’t resist. "From here?" he murmured, running a hand down her side and over the generous curve of her hip. "I don't believe you."
She laughed huskily. "You'll see. It gets better."
The thought offered him some security as he sank back toward sleep.
For Wynston, "cherchez la femme" isn't a mystery-solving technique, it's a lifestyle imperative. Keeper knows it. And an organization the size of Intelligence can, when it wants to, match up just about any life/career experience if it becomes necessary or desirable to do so.
And sometimes doing something a) normal while b) not being alone has benefits all by itself.
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